Braille Monitor March 2008
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by Barbara Pierce
In years to come we may well look back on the 2008 Washington Seminar with particular nostalgia, for it was both exciting and powerfully moving. Many of us are especially fond of the Holiday Inn Capitol because of the simplicity of its layout and its proximity to Capitol Hill. We managed somehow yet again to squeeze hundreds of Federationists into the meeting rooms, and we were happy to discover that additional fast-food restaurants have sprung up in the area.
Sunday, January 27, and Monday the 28th were overflowing with meetings and seminars. Here is at least a partial list, actually beginning on Saturday, January 26:
The Governmental Affairs and Affiliate Action Departments collaborated to present
the 2008 legislative seminar, including advice on making effective presentations,
mastering the facts of the legislative agenda, and presenting our position and
A weekend agenda with such diverse offerings would naturally attract hundreds of people, but at the heart of this one and dominating everyone’s thoughts was the Sunday afternoon memorial celebration of the life of Dr. Betsy Zaborowski, the executive director of the NFB Jernigan Institute from its opening to last summer. A full report of this event appears elsewhere in this issue.
On Monday morning at ten a.m. we called a press conference to make an electrifying announcement. Everyone attending the Washington Seminar was invited, though members of the press were up front. Columbia—the largest meeting room in the hotel—was crowded when President Maurer and Ray Kurzweil stepped forward to unveil the knfbReader Mobile. The Kurzweil-National Federation of the Blind Reader, introduced to great acclaim less than two years ago, has now been replaced by its powerful software loaded into a cell phone with a digital camera. Compact as the original K-NFB Reader was, this is truly a reader that will fit into a shirt pocket.
Jim Gashel demonstrated this amazing technology to an incredulous audience. The controls have been simplified and speeded up. The camera can take photos closer to the page than sixteen inches. The speech is as clear as in the larger unit, and the currency identifier is very accurate.
The cell phone required by this reading software is a Nokia N82, which retails for somewhat under $600 if you shop carefully. Jim Gashel assured the audience that both the Talks and MobileSpeak software programs make this cell phone quite accessible. It can accept or send calls even while the Reader is operating. Users can also purchase a global positioning system that works well with both access programs. The cost of the Reader software is $1,595, a significant reduction in price from the original KNFB Reader, even adding in the cost of the cell phone.
The knfbReader Mobile went on sale February 15. To find the vendor nearest you, go to <www.knfbreader.com> for a complete list. Kurzweil-National Federation of the Blind Reader users will find generous terms for upgrading to the knfbReader Mobile.
The five p.m. briefing was, as usual, standing room only, even though many Federationists went straight to the overflow room to hear the proceedings relayed to them through the public address system. Well over five hundred people attended the great gathering-in meeting. Lord Colin Low of Dalston, CEO of the Royal National Institute of Blind People in the United Kingdom, came to Washington this year to observe our efforts to educate the Congress. During the briefing he addressed the crowd in his usual charmingly understated way.
President Maurer announced that fifty of the fifty-two affiliates were present this year. Before Jim McCarthy and Jesse Hartle discussed this year’s legislative issues with the group, Congressman Edward Markey, representing the seventh district of Massachusetts, stopped by to encourage us in our efforts to deal effectively with quiet cars and described his efforts to increase video description on television programming. He called special attention to the need to voice the print crawls across the bottom of the TV screen.
Our legislative agenda this year included three items of pressing importance: building Congressional support for legislation to require the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration to formulate regulations insuring that hybrid and electric vehicles can be heard in traffic; restoring the lost funding from last year and protecting the full $19.1 million needed this year and in the three successive years to complete the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped’s transition from cassette books to digital media and provide the equipment needed to play them; and passage of H.R. 3834 and S. 2559, raising the earnings limit for blind Social Security Disability Insurance recipients ultimately to that of working retirees who have not yet reached full retirement age. The full text of the legislative agenda and the three fact sheets appears elsewhere in this issue. Please note that the Senate bill number does not appear in the fact sheet because Senators Chris Dodd and John McCain only introduced the bill on Friday, January 25.
Federationists fanned out across Capitol Hill Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday to discuss these issues with every member of the House and Senate and their staffs. When the Nevada delegation met with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reed, the senator came into the room talking about having heard that morning about a reading machine the size of a cell phone. He was sure that his blind constituents would be interested to hear about this new invention. When he stopped for breath, NFB Executive Director for Strategic Initiatives John Paré stepped forward and showed Senator Reed the only knfbReader Mobile in Washington that day. He then successfully demonstrated its features, much to the senator’s delight. That may have been our most dramatic encounter on Capitol Hill January 29 to 31, but important contacts were made and conversations held in offices all over the Hill.
Now that we have returned home from Washington, the hard work begins. We must
follow up with the staffers responsible for the issues we discussed. We must
urge members of Congress to sign on as cosponsors to H.R. 3834 and S. 2559 and
to introduce the quiet car legislation we need. We must keep the pressure on
the Appropriations Committee in the House to protect the funding for the transition
to digital playback machines and books. The strength of the relationships we
forge with our legislators and their staffs in the weeks and months ahead will
determine our success on Capitol Hill during this election year. We have made
a start; now the work begins.